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Monthly round-up: Law stifles whistleblowers in Germany, NGOs targeted in Hungary & more

Crackdowns in Turkey, Azerbaijan continue; new laws stifle media in UK, whistleblowers in Germany; foreign-funded NGOs targeted in Hungary, a Kyrgyz court confirms life sentence for investigative journalist Azimjon Askarov

A protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask attends a demonstration in solidarity with whistleblowers in Berlin, 27 July 2013
A protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask attends a demonstration in solidarity with whistleblowers in Berlin, 27 July 2013

REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski

Turkey started the new year in the same, ugly way that it finished the old one: the wave of arrests and trials of journalists and opposition figures that began after the failed coup of July 2016 has continued. IFEX members are working hard to keep us abreast of the still-evolving situation: the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) provides a weekly overview of the arrests, beatings, charges and detentions in its Turkey Crackdown Chronicle; PEN International is keeping a list of journalists detained and charged (both before and after the attempted coup); Reporters Without Borders (RSF) recently provided an overview of Turkish journalism's “death throes”, in which it reports that the authorities have jailed 100 journalists without trial and closed 149 media outlets; Bianet reports that 229 journalists are currently standing trial.

Turkey is also targeting educators. Of the 100,000 civil servants dismissed from their jobs between June and December 2016, Human Rights Watch reports that 28,000 were teachers. Politico reports that 631 professors and researchers were fired in the first week of 2017 alone.

Free expression groups have been protesting the persecution of various individuals, including the IFEX members Şanar Yurdatapan, Nadine Mater and Erol Önderoglu, and the investigative journalist Ahmet Şık. World writers have collaborated to issue a statement of solidarity with their jailed Turkish colleagues; cartoonists have been using their art to do the same for the detained cartoonist Musa Kart (currently facing terrorism charges). Cartoonists Rights Network International has collated some of the best offerings on its website.

One of the many cartoons drawn in solidarity with Musa Kart and collected by Cartoonists Rights Network International
One of the many cartoons drawn in solidarity with Musa Kart and collected by Cartoonists Rights Network International

Dr Jack & Curtis/CRNI

January saw the tenth anniversary of murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. The investigation is still ongoing and, according to news reports, a former Turkish intelligence chief recently stated that the murder had been deliberately allowed. The European Federation of Journalists and partner organizations of the Council of Europe Platform jointly submitted a new case under the 'impunity' category in relation to Dink's murder, calling for justice for the journalist.

On 23 January, despite calls from human rights groups (including ARTICLE 19, Human Rights Watch, PEN International and Amnesty International) the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) voted against holding an urgent debate on the deteriorating rights situation in Turkey, blocking the implementation of a full monitoring of the state. This hugely disappointing decision was criticized by human rights experts

Kerstin Lundgren, a member of the Swedish delegation to PACE suggested what might have determined the result of the vote
In late January, RSF, English PEN and PEN International wrote to the U.K. Prime Minister, Theresa May, urging her to raise concerns over the deteriorating state of free expression in Turkey during her meeting with President Erdogan at the end of January.

Azerbaijan has also continued its persecution of critical voices. Human Rights Watch reports that 2016 saw the release of 17 journalists, activists and human rights defenders, but warns that it would be unwise to take that as a sign for optimism: at least 24 dissenting voices remain wrongfully imprisoned. January saw the shocking detention and reported torture of Mehman Huseynov, Azerbaijan's top political blogger and chairman of the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety. Twenty rights groups, including IFEX, issued a joint statement condemning Huseynov's treatment and calling for an official investigation into the case. CPJ spotlights Huseynov's case and other recent ones in a January blog post, “Azerbaijani authorities tighten screws on independent media". There was also bad news for Aleksandr Lapshin, a Russian-Israeli blogger detained in Belarus on an extradition request from Azerbaijan: the Belarusian Association of Journalists recently reported that the extradition of the blogger - who faces charges of 'separatism' - will go ahead.

Challenging threatening legislation

In the United Kingdom and Germany, press groups are fighting against legislation that could prove very damaging to journalism in both countries.

In the U.K., media outlets are worried about 'Section 40': draft legislation that critics say could financially cripple or even destroy independent publishers if it is passed. Index on Censorship is leading a high-profile campaign against the draft law and neatly sums up the danger that it presents to the media: “Section 40 addresses the awarding of costs in a case where someone makes a legal claim against a publisher of 'news-related material.' The provision means that any publisher who is not a member of an approved regulator [in the U.K., Impress] at the time of the claim can be forced to pay both sides' cost in a court case — even if they win.”

Section 40 has stirred up controversy in the U.K., where the public holds the press in low esteem. The actor Hugh Grant (a victim of phone-hacking carried out by the tabloid press) is a prominent supporter of Section 40. He contributed an article about it to The Guardian newspaper and has tweeted about the high level of public support for the draft legislation:

Journalists and press freedom experts are mostly against Section 40. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, said that Section 40 “stands to threaten the independence of the press as a 'public watchdog' in the U.K. and undermine its 300 year long-history and leading reputation as a global champion of press freedom.”

In Germany, RSF and other press freedom groups launched a constitutional appeal against a worrying new anti-whistleblower provision in the German Penal Code which makes handling leaked data a statutory offence. RSF and its partners argue that the law criminalizes an important part of the work of investigative journalists, and that it would have criminalised certain aspects of major recent journalistic investigations into the Panama Papers and Russia's systematic state-sponsored doping.

There was some good legal news from Germany: lawmakers are set to abolish the law against insulting foreign leaders. This is the law that allowed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to try to sue a German satirist last year. However, slander and libel laws remain on the books.

Worrying news from Hungary, Russia, Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere

In Hungary, the increasingly authoritarian government seems to be following the bad example set by some of Europe's worst free expression offenders. High profile politicians have suggested that they will target foreign-funded non-governmental organisations (NGOs), specifically naming three rights and anti-corruption groups: the IFEX member Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, Transparency International and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee. Prime Minister Orban displayed the same kind of cynicism that motivated Russian lawmakers to pass their 'foreign agents' law in 2012 when he declared that NGOs would be squeezed in 2017. “Where the money came from, which secret services they were connected to, and which NGOs serve which interests, all will be uncovered," he said, seemingly channelling President Putin circa 2012.

Russia is obviously much further down the authoritarian road than Hungary, and it has continued in its determination to control Russians' access to the internet. The Kremlin's web watchdog – Roskomnadzor - has officially blacklisted over 25,000 websites, writes Natalie Duffy for Global Voices, but the actual number of blocked websites could be more than 600,000.

On 24 January, a Kyrgyz court confirmed the life sentence handed to the investigative journalist Azimjon Askarov following his conviction in 2010 on fabricated charges. CPJ recently called on the World Bank to lobby Kyrgyzstan for Askarov's release. Following the recent court hearing, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights described the court's decision as “deeply troubling” and called for Askarov's conviction and sentence to be “quashed.”

Also on 24 January, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a resolution on attacks on journalists in Europe; the Assembly expressed particular concern over Turkey, Azerbaijan, Russia and the conflict-affected areas of Ukraine. A few days earlier, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović, warned of the generally “regressive” trend in Europe towards “control of the media.”

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